Trojan Nation's connections are getting the same questions they received before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and their answer largely has been the same.
Why would you run a maiden in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (gr. I)?
Because he deserves a shot.
That's the simple answer, but there are some intricacies beyond. Owner and breeder Aaron Sones has indicated from the start that he bred the Street Cry colt, out of the Summer Squall mare Storm Song, entirely to get the classic distances.
There's also that second-place run on a sloppy track in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) that sticks out like a sore thumb in his past performances. Trojan Nation, now winless in seven starts, came closest to victory in the 1 1/8-mile Wood at Aqueduct Racetrack, where he just missed by a head behind Outwork after trailing by as many as 17 lengths early. That preceded a 16th-place finish in the Derby, where he was never really involved.
"I don't think it's an outrageous move," said jockey Aaron Gryder, who was aboard for both the Wood and Derby tries. "If he won the Wood Memorial by a nose instead of losing by a nose, everybody would say he fits. The thing everybody says is, 'He's never won. Why is he in here?' But he's a horse that deserves a chance and you only get one chance at (the Triple Crown races)."
That's not to say they don't acknowledge they are up against it facing the likes of not only winners, but some of the best from the 3-year-old crop in the Belmont. A victory by Trojan Nation June 11 would be the first by a maiden in the Belmont since 1913, when Prince Eugene upset Rock View. The last maiden to run in the Belmont was Guadalcanal, who finished seventh in the 2008 edition.
"They're just taking a shot, same as they did in the Wood and the Derby," added Andy Durnin, assistant to Southern California-based trainer Patrick Gallagher. "After this, that's it—party's over as far as the 3-year-olds go in the Triple Crown. We can always go back to maiden races.
"The way he ran in the Wood, he deserves a shot to run in these big races. He's showed he has something there."
Durnin, who has travelled with Trojan Nation to all of his East Coast stops this year, has been impressed with how the colt handles shipping. Each time, Trojan Nation has returned to Southern California before shipping out again.
"His demeanor is impressing me," Durnin said. "How he's taken everything in stride is impressing me."
Durnin, a former jockey in the Mid-Atlantic region after his arrival stateside in 1990—"The day Unbridled won the Derby. The fifth of May in 1990. That's easy to remember, isn't it?"—is likely best known as the exercise rider for Fusaichi Pegasus when he was working for trainer Neil Drysdale. He has been Gallagher's go-to guy on the road.
Decked out in as many Philadelphia Eagles logos as he could fit onto his shirt and riding helmet to prod the locals, Durnin guided Trojan Nation through his final pre-Belmont gallop June 10. The colt galloped just more than a full lap around Big Sandy—1 5/8 miles.
"You have to have to have the right temperament to ship like he has," Durnin said. "On the track, he's not necessarily calm. He can jump around and play, and be aggressive—he can be high spirited when he wants to be. He started off a little aggressive (today), but coming to these new tracks, he does a lot of looking around."
As for race tactics, Gryder isn't as concerned with his trip as much as getting his mount comfortable early in the 12-furlong test. Early in his career racing at Santa Anita Park and Del Mar, Trojan Nation had difficulty relaxing in maiden special weight races.
"I'm just going to ride him, so he gets in stride and gets comfortable," the jockey said. "I can't worry about the pace or any of that. I want him to get into a relaxed stride and that's going to be his best chance. What happens in the middle of the race—that's up the other riders.
"Hopefully his stamina will make a difference down the stretch. The one thing you don't want is a horse pulling for a mile and a half."
And what about the chance of rain Saturday, which has been sneaking higher in probability leading up to the race? For a colt who ran his best race on a wet track, that'd be just fine.
"That doesn't hurt my feelings," Gryder said of the now 50% chance of precipitation in the forecast. "I don't think he has to have the mud, but it sure wouldn't bother me."